Somalia: Aid groups investigate polio outbreak

12 August, 2014
Somalia, 2013: A young girl receives a polio vaccination during a UNICEF/WHO campaign in 2013. Credit: UNICEF
Somalia, 2013: A young girl receives a polio vaccination during a UNICEF/WHO campaign in 2013. Credit: UNICEF

UN agencies in Somalia have combined forces to visit a remote district of Puntland in north-east Somalia where four people have contracted polio this year. The victims – a young father who died and three children who were paralysed – all live in Jariban district, a long drive along a dusty track from the nearest main town of Galkayo.

The entire area is a known haven for pirates and armed gangs. However, these four cases are the only ones reported in Somalia so far this year. So, despite the challenges and dangers, it was essential that aid groups visit the area to discover how the virus arrived, and to develop strategies to stop its spread.

“The first visit to this area for a very long time”

Somalia was declared polio-free in 2007 with hundreds of thousands of people having been vaccinated in recent years. But in May 2013, the first case of polio in six years was reported in Mogadishu. Since then, 198 people, mostly children, have been affected by the highly contagious virus.

The mission to Jariban was organized by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), in partnership with the Puntland Health Ministry. Other UN agencies – the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the UN Department of Safety and Security and OCHA – helped arrange logistics for the complicated road mission, and provided additional aid supplies to distribute during the mission.

“This mission showed the commitment of the humanitarian community to support the polio programme, to come together and make a difference,” said Dr Ghulam Popal, WHO’s Somalia Representative. The mission included aid workers from the different UN agencies, as well as senior representatives from the Puntland Ministry of Health.

“We had the highest commitment from the Puntland Government and very much appreciated their participation,” said Dr. Dhananjoy Gupta, UNICEF’s Polio Team Leader in Somalia. “This was the first visit by the UN or the Government to this area for a very long time.”

“A very sad visit”

The convoy set off from Galkayo at dawn on 22 July and drove seven hours to Jariban town, where the team met a group of elders to discuss the outbreak and raise awareness about the cause and consequence of the virus. Jariban town has only one Mother and Child Health clinic run by the Somali Red Crescent Society but no hospital or other facilities.

The following day the convoy drove another three hours to Towfiq village where they visited the family of the 29 year old man who had died after contracting polio.

“This was a very sad visit,” said Dr. Abraham Mulugeta, WHO Somalia’s Polio Team Leader. “The man’s wife said she and their five children had been vaccinated but he had not. He was the only breadwinner in the family.”

The three children who were paralysed live in villages close to Towfiq that are only accessible on foot, so the team could not visit them. However experts had already met one of the children, two year old Asha, who had been brought by her mother to Galkayo.

Vaccination campaigns will continue

While in Towfiq, the team witnessed a door-to-door vaccination campaign for children – the third such campaign since the outbreak was discovered in the area in May. There will be another campaign in August that will cover the whole region, and that will aim to reach adults as well. There is no health facility in Towfiq so these campaigns are crucial to stop the virus spreading.

On the way back to Galkayo, the team identified a small landing strip that will provide UN agencies with easier access.

“This trip showed the real obstacles and challenges to reaching every last child in Somalia, and the creative ways the UN can use to overcome them,” said Foroogh Foyouzat, UNICEF’s Acting Somalia Representative.

“Polio is a major challenge for us but we must keep up the pace until we are certain that polio is eliminated from Somalia and not another single child or adult will be paralysed or die from the virus.”